The limits of federal state capacity in managing Australia’s Murray-Darling River Basin

Stephen Bell
School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia; stephen.bell@uq.edu.au

ABSTRACT: This paper is about the capacity of the federal government in Australia to achieve its stated water management and environmental goals in relation to the Murray-Darling River system via its Murray-Darling Basin Plan of 2012. The paper uses a 'state capacity' approach. One aspect of state capacity is about the state's broad institutional capabilities; these are the ways in which the state's resources and policy instruments, its institutions, and its knowledge and data capabilities can shape the state's capacity to achieve its stated goals. The second aspect is relational, emphasising the notion of 'infrastructural power', or how states might be able to achieve their goals by working cooperatively with major interlocutors in the broader state or in society. These two aspects are typically viewed from a state-centric perspective, with the state depicted as using its broad institutional capacities to help further its relational or infrastructural power over other interlocutors. In contrast, this paper shows how this process has been reversed, and how key interlocutors, including important players in federal and state governments and powerful irrigation interests, have instead drawn resources from and manipulated the key institutional elements of state capacity to suit their own interests, weaken the federal state’s infrastructural power, and subvert the stated aims of the Basin Plan.

KEYWORDS: State capacity, Murray-Darling Basin, water governance, institutions, infrastructural power, Australia.